Marionettes on a High Wire
Omnitone 12101

One of the key members of St. Louis's cooperative Black Artists Group (BAG) in the late 1960s along with the likes of Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill, trumpeter Baikida Carroll has followed a unique career locus since he settled in New York.

Over the years, he has spent as much time composing for regional theatre projects, film, television and dance performances as he has playing. His performing was further curtailed by a bout with Bell's Palsy in the late 1980s, which left half of his embouchure permanently paralyzed. It took him three years to overcome the results of being stricken.

Impressively enough, though, this fine CD shows that despite setbacks, Carroll has lost neither his chops nor his inventiveness. A strong freebop quintet session, it could be seen as extending the modal conception Miles Davis abandoned when he turned to electronic fusion in the early 1970s.

Although Carroll wrote all the material, he's helped immeasurably by the efforts of the other musicians, who perform at the same high level as Miles' Wayne-Herbie-Ron-Tony quintet. Pianist Adegoke Steve Colson is a longtime member of BAG's Chicago counterpart, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM); tenor saxophonist Lindsay has worked with leaders as different as McCoy Tyner and Dizzy Gillespie; Michael Formanek is best known for his work in Tim Berne's bands; and Pheeroan akLaff has put in his time with Anthony Braxton among others.

You can probably hear the MilesFive link most closely on "Miss Julie", which was originally written by the trumpeter for actress Kim Cattrall's interpretation of the title role in the August Strindberg play of then same name. Filled with fragile muted trumpet wisps, featherlight piano shadings and barely there bass and drums backing, it's one of those ballad performance that seems as if it should fade off into the mist, but slowly reveals the powerful skeleton underneath.

"Velma" named for Carroll's revered grandmother, also sounds as if it could have migrated from a 1960s Blue Note session. Conveyed by churning, modal piano chords, and tender trumpet lines, it's a soulful lullaby that also allows Lindsay to unleash one of her best solos of the date: it's chocolate smooth tone masking the bittersweet, hard candy centre. The trumpeter's earlier associates like alto saxophonist Hemphill and cornetist Don Cherry are memorialized as well with "Flamboye" and "Griot's Last Dance" respectively. Hemphill, who actually recruited Carroll for BAG after hearing him practicing late one night on a deserted golf course is celebrated with a flamboyant, abstract tune that tries to reflect both the altoist's probing personality and his colorful stage suits. Built around tension and release, "Flamboye" offers some of the group's most abstract playing, centred on a balanced, freeish dialogue between tenor saxophone and trumpet.

This inside/outside duality extends to Formanek's string strumming fading into a an ur bop, double time excursion from Colson on the title track, which is then surmounted by brass exploration, courtesy of its composer. Coexistence between the instruments here and elsewhere relates to Carroll's contention that the life of an artist is a delicate balancing act between satisfaction and solvency.

Finally, there's "Cab", another theatre-created piece. An under two minute recapitulation of early jazz, with Bubber Miley style growl trumpet, pre-modern Chu Berry like saxophone and a James P. Johnson influenced stride piano part, it culminates in a joyous, rickety-tick ending.

Perhaps that's something else Carroll picked up from his theatrical experience: always send the customer home happy, humming a tune. If the neo-cons hadn't started to force it backwards 20 years ago, this CD demonstrates where thoughtful mainstream jazz was headed at that time, and what most contemporary mainstream jazz should sound like right now.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ebullient Secrets 2.Griot's Last Dance 3.Marionettes on a High Wire 4.Miss Julie 5.Our Say 6.A Thrill a Minute 7.Velma 8.Flamboye 9.Down Under 10.Cab

Personnel: Baikida Carroll (trumpet); Erica Lindsay (tenor saxophone); Adegoke Steve Colson (piano); Michael Formanek (bass); Pheeroan akLaff (drums)